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Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and their Gallery 72


Nan Mason, American painter, 1896-1982, at wor...

Image by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

If you saw the odd little old couple on the street you would never guess they were serious art connoisseurs. But get them in their element, at a museum or at a gallery opening, and get them talking art, and then there would be no doubt that Bob and Roberta Rogers were much more than some stereotypical representation of narrow minded, buttoned down old fogies. Then you would see them for who they really were — savvy, sophisticated art collectors and dealers whose open minds saw them champion all sorts of edgy art.  Together, they owned and operated perhaps the most respected private gallery in Omaha.  They made their Gallery 72 a fixture on the local art scene.  When Roberta died Bob carried on for a while on his own. Then his son John joined him. By the time Bob died, the gallery was fully in the hands of John, who moved the business to an emerging arts hub on Vinton Street in South Omaha. My story about the couple originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and their Gallery 72

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

For the longest time, Bob and Roberta Rogers of Omaha were models of conventionality.  He did the 9 to 5 office routine. She stayed home to raise their two sons.  Their lives revolved around work, family, home, church, school.  Then, in middle age, a funny thing happened.  The 1960s arrived with a bang and they found themselves drawn to the decade’s vital counter-culture movement.

Unlike most of their generation, who resisted the tumult, the Rogers embraced the era’s provocative art, film, music, literature.  They were especially taken with the Pop Art scene and the groundbreaking work of artists like Andy Warhol. Their new found passion led to a whole new way of life.  She began hanging out at Old Market head shops.  He started breaking out of the corporate mold by opening a donut business.  And although not artists themselves, they became ardent art admirers and collectors.  So much so, they started their own gallery in 1972.

“We learned so much about art by just looking at it.  We just got to looking.  And we both got interested in doing something creative,” Roberta said in the sweet, meandering accent of her native Mississippi.  “In both of our cases we were finally getting around to doing something we should have done when we were younger.”

Better late than never.  Twenty-six years later their Gallery 72 at 2709 Leavenworth Street is a respected venue presenting and selling contemporary works by top American and foreign artists.  They feel a life in art was somehow meant for them.

“I think this is to a certain extent something you almost get a calling for,” Roberta said.  “What we wanted to do was to bring the kind of art people should be looking at and collecting in Omaha — really good contemporary art.  That was our mission.  I guess we wanted to be art missionaries, and any true missionary doesn’t think too much about the consequences or they wouldn’t become missionaries.  It was awful tough getting started, but we survived through various ways and sundry miracles.”

 

 

Bob Rogers

 

 

Their mission has taken them far beyond their gallery walls.  They have long been fixtures at local art shows.  She has been a Joslyn Art Museum docent and a presenter of art educational programs at area schools.  He has advised galleries, museums, corporations and private collectors.  Their undying devotion to art has won them many admirers.

“A lot of people get into gallery work because they know a little bit about art and may have a good eye, but they still look on it as a business,” said Joslyn Art Museum registrar Penelope Smith.  “Bob and Roberta look on it as a vocation.  They really believe in the art they’re exhibiting and they really care about it.”

The couple has acquired a reputation as astute art appraisers, collectors and exhibitors as well as enthusiastic art lovers. Their contributions to the visual arts in Nebraska were recognized with the 1990 Governor’s Art Award.

“I don’t know of anybody within the state that has more personal passion for and commitment to art and artists,” said George Neubert, director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln.  Neubert, a sculptor, has shown at Gallery 72. “It’s a full range of support and nurturing they provide, whether it’s at one of their famous potlucks, where they gather together a wonderful strange mix of people interested in art, or whether it’s selling works to museums for their collections.”

Omaha painter Stephen Roberts notes the “very warm atmosphere” the Rogers extend to artists like himself and the fact “they show things they really love.  I think sales are really secondary to them.”

Married 54 years, the Rogers are such stalwart partners in their life and vocation that you can’t think of one without the other.  “I think it was fate that I met Bob,” Roberta said.  “I’d had several young men that were interested, but they didn’t care for the same things that I liked.  We just both liked the same things.  We’ve always done nutty things.”

If nothing else, they prove appearances can be deceiving.  A casual glance at their storefront gallery, across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downtown’s Park East area, suggests a curio shop.  But on closer inspection it is a showplace whose spare neutral interior is a perfect backdrop for the paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures displayed there.  The unassuming Rogers are Omaha’s mom and pop art missionaries all right, and so much more.  These forever youthful codgers are full of surprises.  She’s an effusive Southern sprite with a biting wit.  He’s a gruff stoic curmudgeon with a stubborn free-spirit. Together, they’re quite a pair.

Their apartment above the gallery is a single-level New York-style loft whose tall windows overlook St. Peter’s.  Nearly every available inch of  space is covered by art from their extensive, eclectic personal collection.  Book shelves bulge with volumes on art.  A huge industrial cabinet and table double as a kitchen pantry and dining surface, respectively. Magazines and newspapers are strewn everywhere.  Potted plants adorn one corner.  It is a home resonating with the energy of lives lived well and fully.

Although slowed by age — he’s 79, she’s 83 —  their intense feeling for art remains undiminished.  To understand the depth of that feeling, one must return to when their lives were transformed.  They credit their sons, John and Robert, with introducing them to the vital art scene emerging in the ‘60s.  Robert attended the Kansas City Art Institute at the time.

“He came back and told us about all these exciting things going on,” Roberta said.  “Those were the days when the modern old masters were struggling young artists.”

Innovative modern artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella “changed the history of art forever,” Bob said in the low, flat rumble he speaks in. Adds Roberta, “When I found out about people like Stella and Oldenburg and great foreign movies by Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini and music by Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and the Doors, it was like I was finally coming alive.  It almost seemed like we were waiting for something to come along,  and when we discovered all these wonderful things, we were ready.  It seems like I had been just kind of existing up till then.  As I tell people, I think I was really born in the ‘60s.”

Bob was equally inspired by the fervor of the times.  “There was a tremendous amount of energy in America that we don’t have now,” he said.  What many of their generation viewed as a threat, he and Roberta saw as an exciting new experience full of personal growth opportunities.  Instead of rejecting youth, they followed their lead.

“In those days all the parents were screaming about ‘my children won’t talk to me,’ but I never felt we had that problem,” he said.  “We never had a void in our relations.  We let our sons educate us.  They brought us into the 20th century.”

The Rogers, though, were hardly art neophytes.  Each was brought up to appreciate the finer things.  That mutual interest was a point of attraction when they met during World War II.  But even after they married, circumstances left little time or money to pursue their shared passion.

She grew up in a series of Midwestern and Southern towns, moving with her family wherever her father’s civil engineering job with the Illinois Central Railroad took them.  Her mother was an arts devotee and Roberta often accompanied her on cultural outings.

 

 

 

 

“My mother had friends who were artists, so I got a feeling for what they were trying to do. My mother recognized these things were necessary.  She loved music.  She loved the theater.  And when we were in a place where we could go, why we went.”

Roberta’s many travels even brought her, as a teen, to Omaha, where she and her family lived during 1928-29.  She attended Saunders School (since closed) and lived in the Austin Apartments near the Joslyn Castle. She recalls seeing Al Jolson in the first motion picture talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” at the Riviera Theater (now The Rose) and taking the streetcar to attend Saturday afternoon matinees as well as repertory plays at the now defunct Brandeis Theater.

Bob, an Iowa native, fed his artistic muse dabbling in theater at Northwestern University, where he majored in business administration to please his father, a sales manager at John Morrell meatpacking company.

“My father had a dream that I was supposed to carry on what he was doing,” he explains.  “Well, he overlooked the fact that every human that’s born is different.  His idea of what I should do in my life was 180 degrees from what I wanted to do, but you couldn’t tell your father that.  If I could have kicked over the traces I would of got a job in the front-office of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.  I was a baseball fanatic in those days.  If that hadn’t of worked out I probably would have gone in the technical end of the theater in Chicago.”

But like a good son he followed his father’s wishes and obediently punched the clock at Morrell even though he felt stifled there.  Then the war came and with it his active duty in the Army Quartermasters and eventually action in Europe.  His stint in the service also led him to Roberta.  It was while stationed at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss. that their lives intersected in 1941.

“We were living in Gulfport at the time.  My father had a little house up in the piney woods about 18 miles from the Gulf Coast.  There was a place where soldiers with a weekend pass could get away from camp and swim and go to movies” Roberta recalls.  “Every Saturday night the ladies in Gulfport had a dance at the community center.  A band came over from Biloxi to play.

“They recruited all the young unmarried women in Gulfport to come.   It was Labor Day weekend and most of the troops from Camp Shelby were over in Louisiana on maneuvers, and so it was one of the few times there were about as many men as there were women.  And that’s how Bob and I got to talkin’ and all.  I liked him.  He was a nice quiet young man.  As we got to know each other and visit more and all, why we just found out we had a lot of common interests.”

The only potential obstacle was their families’ diametrically opposed politics.  Her people were staunch Democrats.  His, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.  Fortunately, her father was a Northerner by birth and a Republican by nature.  The match could go on.

After an 18-month engagement the couple married in 1943 in San Bernardino, Calif., near the training center Bob was assigned.  After the war he resumed working for Morrell.  It was around this time his father died, and as Bob says, “I really didn’t feel like I had to fulfill his dream anymore.”

He then went from job to job, searching for his niche, but always ending up frustrated.  His job with a packaging services firm led the couple to Omaha in 1958.  Soon he got fed up again and tried a drastic change.

“Bob was seeking.  He felt getting into the donut business was really a creative kind of thing and so we started the Mr. Donut shops here in 1964.  It took off pretty well but then after several years we began to have problems with getting good help,” she said.  “Then Bob just asked one day, ‘What would you think of opening an art gallery?’  And I said, ‘I guess it would be okay.’  We both knew it was going to be an uphill battle with art in Omaha.  But the boys were raised and we decided we could sink or swim or starve in an attic and start our own art gallery.”

Unlike today, galleries were rare then in Omaha.  Still, there was no looking back.  “Once the bug bites you, you’re bitten. That’s the way it is,” she said.  They sacrificed everything for the project, opening in a strip mall on 72nd Street, hence the name.

“We pared our living expenses way down,” she said. “But it didn’t work out too well out there… and so we sold the house we were living in and we looked around for a building.”

They found the building they occupy now, formerly offices of the Association for the Blind, and after renovating it, re-opened the gallery in 1974.  She said their mission has remained constant:  “It was to show the best of contemporary art, because we live in a contemporary world.  Another thing we felt was that the work had to be of museum quality.  In all these years we’ve only had one show where everything in it was not of museum quality.  And we’ve never gone into making a living off of crafts and jewelry. Just art.  We felt like that would be lowering our standards.”

With the advent of area artist cooperatives, the gallery shows fewer local artists than in the past.  The art market has also changed drastically since Gallery 72 opened.  “Then you could get a good fine art print by the best artist for $150.  Now that these artists have become so much better known their prints come out at $3000 or $4000 or $5000 each,” she said.

Three woodcuts the Rogers acquired years ago (by Francesco Clemente, William T. Wiley and Pat Steir) have risen in value many times over.  “I sold a little bit of stock I had and with that and a few dollars Bob put in we got the three of them wholesale.  They were real bargains.  Any one of ‘em is way more valuable than the dividend would have been.  And I feel like I’m getting a good dividend just because I look at ‘em all the time.”

Bob said the law of supply and demand accounts for such steep price increases.  “There’s a limited amount of these things, and a ton of people who want it.  People are always asking me, Do you think this will go up in value?  Well, I never sell anybody art for an investment because there’s very little way you can tell for sure.”

Roberta said the true reward of art is not the money it brings, but the satisfaction it affords.  “Art is something that when it gets in your blood, your mind, your being, it just adds so much to your life and how you feel about yourself.  When you look at a piece of art you’ve got a relationship with this artist’s mind.  It’s like a conversation.  It says something to you, you say something back, and it becomes a visual dialogue.”

Bob, who makes all decisions concerning which artists to show, said too often people fret over the meaning of a work rather than just respond to it instinctually.  “Don’t analyze anything,” he suggests. “If you went to the artist and asked him, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you, or if he did, it’d be something he made up.”

For him, the best art provokes thoughts and feelings that broaden your mind. One’s likes or dislikes, he said, have “a lot to do with what you’re willing to accept” and what “you’ve been exposed” to.  As far as his and Roberta’s preferences, they both like geometric abstraction.  He prefers minimalist art more than she does.  Although their tastes do diverge, they say they never argue over a piece or artist for the gallery.

To stay abreast of art and cultural trends, he reads art and news publications daily.  He finds artists for the gallery in several ways.  “

One of the best sources we have is the artists we work with,” he said.  Seeing exhibitions is another.  In May Bob attended the annual Navy Pier show in Chicago, featuring some 200 galleries from around the world.  The couple used to make the rounds in New York, but can’t any longer due to physical/ financial constraints.  Now, she said, “We bring the world to us. We’ve brought artists from Spain, Cuba, New York, Chicago, the West Coast.  It’s made life very interesting.”

The Rogers know their gallery has limited appeal. That’s why they’ve tried developing their own market, largely through word-of-mouth.  “And that’s difficult to do,” Bob said, “because the average run of people will buy a picture of a butterfly, but they would never buy a Claes Oldenburg painting or print of a clothespin sitting in the middle of Philadelphia.  So we have to develop the kind of people that will relate to that.”

Many of their best customers are art-savvy residents who’ve moved here from either coast.  The Rogers are known for hosting fun, informal potluck dinners, occasions they use to develop potential clients and to give guests a forum for “exchanging ideas.”

“People who don’t know each other, know each other when they leave.  And so far we’ve never had a food fight,” Roberta said with a smile.

The couple has no plans to retire.  “You don’t retire in art, you die in art,” she said.  “It keeps us young.”

Besides, their mission continues.

“There’s so much to learn about art,’ said Roberta.  “There’s so many different styles and types.  And whether people come in and buy or not, we feel like our role is to educate them.”

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